Regaining Public Trust in Media in the Age of Trump

The other course I’m teaching this spring is Media Law & Ethics, which we’ve hashtagged as #MediaLawEthics for Twitter purposes. (Join us this term…)

This never is a purely theoretical course to teach, as there’s always something in the news that thrusts the subject matter into the headlines. That’s not least because we have a president who declares almost daily that most all political news (that is, political news that doesn’t explicitly support him and his policies) is corrupt and fake.

Outside a core group of supporters who believe nothing the media report and everything Trump says, most Americans take a more nuanced view. But it’s true that trust in journalism is low: Only 27% of Americans in a Summer 2017 Gallup poll said they have high confidence in newspapers, 24% said the same of TV News and only 16% said they trust what they read on the internet.

To be fair, it should be noted that trust in nearly all American institutions has been sliding since the 1970s, so this isn’t simply a question of singling out media for special distrust.

We’ll talk much in #MediaLawEthics about how media might regain trust as a necessary element of serving as a watchdog in a constitutional system.

As we get started in the course, Jay Rosen of New York University has authored a new and much-talked-about piece that offers 11 ideas for regaining trust:

The first is one I’ve supported for decades: Stop making pretenses of objectivity and instead let readers and viewers know, as Rosen says, ‘where you’re coming from’ in your journalism. It’s no crime to be a progressive or conservative in America; it is dishonest to claim you have no views.

This, Rosen admits, ‘will probably take the longest to unfold. Drop the voice of the god, ditch the view from nowhere, and instead tell us where you’re coming from. Then we can apply whatever discount rate we want.’

The objectivity standard worked for journalism during the 100 years that largely were years of political consensus built around Rooseveltian liberalism and institutional media. There never was a true objectivity in journalism or reporting — such a standard would be impossible for humans to create — and indeed the conservative critique of media is less one of liberal media bias than it bemoans a lack of conservative worldview. (See Nicole Hemmer‘s excellent recent book on the history of the rise of the conservative mediasphere for a full analysis.)

There are 10 other ways journalists can change the way they go about their work that  Rosen thinks would help journalists regain the public’s trust. Journalists should:

  1. Tell readers what they know and what they don’t. ‘The news system is imperfect, and the state of our knowledge is always evolving.’
  2. Show readers how they did their reporting. ‘Because the work that went into a story doesn’t always show in the results.’
  3. Provide tools by which readers can check the work of journalists. ‘If I summarize what Senator Rand Paul said on ‘Face the Nation’ this week, and then link to the transcript so you can assess for yourself whether my summary is fair and accurate, I’m not asking you to take my word for it. I’m allowing you to discover on your own how faithful my summary is to the original.’
  4. Reveal the current priorities of their news organizations. ‘What do newsrooms cover? The news! What is news? What journalists cover. I think you’ll agree: that is not very transparent. The alternative is to level with the public about reporting priorities. Explain what you are devoting scarce resources to.’
  5. Call on the public to help them investigate stories. ‘You’re acknowledging that you don’t know everything— or even where to go to look. You’re bringing people into the process, showing them how you work. You’re asking for help.’
  6. Be upfront about what it costs to do their work. ‘If people are going to pay directly for their news and information, they need to know what they’re paying for.’
  7. Ask readers to tell them what they missed in their reporting. ‘It should become common practice in publishing complex stories. “What did we miss?” promotes transparency because it says no report is complete.’
  8. Respond to attacks on their reporting. ‘Transparency is also about being extra clear. It means leveling with readers. When a published report is subjected to unfair attack, the transparent thing to do is to not to ignore it, but to respond with chapter and verse.’
  9. Help those coming in on the middle of a story to understand what they’ve missed so far. ‘There is a greater awareness now that most people are coming in the middle of the movie, meaning: by the time they realize something big is going on, a lot has already happened. A stream of updates won’t address that. Journalists have to offer us more help.’

The upshot is that the times in which journalism is being created are as different. Today is as different from the Vietnam and Watergate eras as were Vietnam and Watergate from the Civil War and Yellow Journalism.

Yet most reporters and editors stick to old practices as if etched in stone. Rosen makes the case that the profession can’t expect to regain trust using practices that worked a half century ago.

(Photo Credit: Rcade via Flickr)

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